The Haiti Crisis: Aristide Is Not the Issue

by Bill Fletcher, Jr.

Dollars and Sense magazine, May/June 2004


One of the biggest mistakes people have made looking at the recent Haitian crisis has been to focus on the person of President Bertrande Aristide. This may sound odd since, after all, he is the one who was overthrown. What took place this February was not simply the ouster of an individual, however, but the termination of constitutional rule. Thus, whether someone happens to oppose or support President Aristide is secondary. The primary question is whether it is permissible to overthrow a genuinely elected leader other than via legal and constitutional procedures.

Following the coup, many progressives reacted, understandably, by defending President Aristide-the-person. But this misses the point about the coup's upending of constitutional rule. It also fails to address the complications that President Aristide found himself facing as a result of the conditions that he accepted when he was returned to power in 1994.

At that time, the U.S. government imposed on President Aristide a set of conditions that were the equivalent of handcuffing him. He was expected to adopt, almost wholesale, the economic approach that has come to be known as the Washington Consensus. This included the elimination of thousands of civil service positions and the advancement of a privatization agenda. The United States and multilateral lending institutions demanded this approach of the poorest country in the Western Hemisphere, one emerging from a history of political despotism and neo-colonialism. For better or for worse, President Aristide accepted these parameters.

The difficulty for President Aristide, however, is that sections of his base were unwilling to accept such conditions. They were thirsting after the Aristide who, upon his initial election in 1990, had promised a redistribution of wealth and the articulation of a politics defined not by the Haitian wealthy elite, but by the Haitian majority-its poor.

In some respects, then, it is appropriate to see the post-1994 Aristide as a political character buffeted by contending political waves. On the one hand, his bases among the historically dispossessed protested against privatization and demanded that Aristide carry forward his promised reforms-and were in some cases able to halt neoliberal efforts. Sections of this base became disenchanted, feeling that Aristide had either gone back on his word or was not moving forward quickly enough. In some cases there were more serious criticisms about alleged human rights abuses by the government and its failure to investigate them. Nevertheless, it appears that the bulk of his base remained loyal to him and to his party, Famni Lavalas.

The other wave was from the political right. It was a wave generated from both Washington and from the Haitian elite. This wave saw in Aristide, even the new-and-improved Aristide after 1994, a person too far to the left and an unstable political element. Aristide's efforts to change the conditions of the Haitian poor through improvements in health care, education, and roads were viewed as a threat to the dominance of the rich and powerful.

Thus, President Aristide went too far to the right to satisfy important sections of his base (and in some cases demoralizing them), but not far enough to the right to satisfy the Bush administration and the Haitian elite.

The coup against Aristide, then, must be understood not in isolation, but as the culmination of activities that really began the minute he was re-elected in 2000. Destabilization efforts by the U.S. government, active U.S. support for the creation of a so-called civil-society opposition, and eventually the invasion of Haiti by an armed band of criminals and murderers were all part of a process designed to ensure that Haiti would return fully to the fold of the U.S. empire and its minions in Haiti.

There are many lessons that we in the United States must learn from this entire debacle, but perhaps the most important one is that the actions of our citizenry, or our inactions, help determine whether the space in which countries of the global South operate is one in which dreams can be realized, or one in which nightmares must be suffered.


Bill Fletcher, Jr., is the president of TransAfrica Forum, a Washington, D. G-based nonprofit educational and organizing center formed to raise awareness in the United States regarding issues facing the nations and peoples of Africa, the Caribbean, and Latin America. He can be reached at

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